I am far from home and a little forlorn about missing out on NYC’s first snowfall of the season. But with each loss comes a gain and so on this past Thursday, I traded in my snow boots, shovel and ski cap to be warmed by India’s winter sun.
I arrive at Indira Gandhi International airport in the city of Delhi and I am greeted by a smokey smoggy sky that smells of burning wood. The locals can no longer recognize the scent as it is a part or their everyday existence. It is only recognized by the outsiders – like me. And an outsider I am! Everywhere I go I get looks and stares from the locals as if they have never seen skin so fair or hair so curly. Throughout my stay the staring never ceases and I feel the eyes of all of Delhi – all 14.5 million people – are on me.
I ride along in the car with my driver Nitin to the tune of Cat Stevens playing on the tape deck. I am comforted and humored by the fact that my first Indian driving experience involves the lyrics of Oh Baby its a Wild World playing in the background.
The streets of Delhi are no match for even the most adept NYC cab driver. For miles I can see cars, rickshaws, bicycles, stray dogs, camels, cows and goats all chaotically cruising in and out traffic – and not once do they collide or crash. To my right I see a pedestrian bravely and boldly walking across the street and to my left I see a man on a bicycle transporting 57 small and large hand-woven baskets on his back.
Outside the car, but not out of harms way, I enter the heart of Old Delhi and wander through Chandni Chowk Road - Delhi’s main thoroughfare. I wind my way through the dirt streets and into Khari Baoli – Asia’s largest spice market. If I thought my home of Greenwich Village seemed stuck in time, I am in for a shock today. This market dates back to 1650AD when it was an opulent and bustling market. It is still bustling – but no longer retains even an ounce of opulence.
Through the dusty streets I wander on a quest for authentic Indian spices – all the while dodging the aggressive crowds of motorcycles, women walking with jugs of water on their heads and trucks delivering goods to the market. The permanent smog that is suspended in the air is only magnified by the dust from the dirt streets, the smell of incense burning and the scent of hot chili powder as I near the heart of the spice market. I am assaulted by the fragrances and aromas. I walk for 25 minutes on a trek to reach the center – all the while I am coughing and sneezing. I pop a Ricola cough drop in my mouth in attempt to temporarily soothe my dry throat.
There is only one cure for my ailments – my stuffy nose and my congested chest filled with soot and smoke – and that cure is around the next corner. Finally I reach the heart of the spice market – a market which does not service homes and housewives but is intended for retail shops and restaurants. With so many stalls to choose from, I come upon a smiling older gentleman named Shiva who sits on a thin cushion on the hard dirt floor of his tiny stall.
His spices are kept in small bowls in front of him in a sea of colors as stunning as the saris of the women walking past me in the market. Bright red chilis, yellow mustard seeds, magnificent masalas and colorful curries stand out against the dusty dirt road which lies only inches below these bowls. Tiny twigs of sweet-smelling cloves and pretty packets of star-shaped aniseed complete the picture of perfection. Cardamom, cumin and coriander compound my senses and I am intoxicated. I am also no longer sneezing.
Shiva rips off a tiny piece of newspaper and uses it as a makeshift spoon and I begin to sample the spices. On first taste I am invincible as my palate bravely bears the burden of the increasing heat. And now, only a few moments into my spice tasting session, I can no longer feel my tongue as the blend of spices – otherwise known as garam masala or hot mix – attacks my inexperienced taste buds. The heat – enough to melt the 22 inches of snow reported back home in NYC – melts away my ego and my confidence as a spice-lover is shaken. The temperature is only 65 degrees outside but inside – I am boiling.
I wave my white flag and surrender to the spice. After 5 minutes of gasping for cool air and grasping for cold bottled water I notice a distinct result. My cough is gone and my stuffy nose cleared. Even the dirt and dust kicked up by the passing bus can’t penetrate my secret steel wall of spicy protection. The medicinal power of these spices – born of Indian soil – is in full swing. And in perfect English Shiva and I discuss their healing energy. Tumeric for treating stomach ailments, burns and bruises. Cardamom to cure colds. Cloves for coping with a toothache.
Beyond that it is believed that my beloved, albeit mouth-burning, spices can even cure cancer – mustard seeds in particular. Shiva instructs me to try some coriander to lower cholesterol and some turmeric to slow Alzheimer’s. And with Shiva’s words, I feel as if I have a secret bit of knowledge that I can tuck away for future use. Heading back to my hotel after a full day at the market and with spice packets in hand, I breath just a little bit easier. While I may have missed the first snow of the winter season – I will come back with a cure for the first cold.
My cough is cured. My nose is cleared. It was worth the trek.
And if you want to have a spice tasting for yourself, come on over… I exported a few.